March 30, 2020

Gilad Shalit: Why His Engagement Means So Much to Jews

In this handout photo provided by the Israeli Defence Force, freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit (2nd R) walks with Defence Minister Ehud Barak (L), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2nd, L) and IDF Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz (R) at Tel Nof Airbase on October 18, 2011 in central Israel. Shalit was freed after being held captive for five years in Gaza by Hamas militants, in a deal which saw Israel releasing more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. (Photo by IDF via Getty Images)

Oct. 18, 2011, was one of the best days of my life. It was the day Gilad Shalit, the Israel Defense Forces soldier abducted by Hamas in 2006 and kept in captivity in Gaza, was released.

It must have been one of the best days of Shalit’s life, too, until recently. On Valentine’s Day, he became engaged to his girlfriend, Nitzan Shabbat.

For millions of Jews who kept a daily tally of his abduction, attended rallies and prayed for his release, it felt as though we had a stake in the trajectory of Shalit’s future, including his getting married and pursuing a career as a sports reporter after his military discharge.

A picture of the radiantly smiling 33 year-old Shalit, and his fiancée brought back a poignant image of Shalit in 2011 — thin and pale, saluting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu upon his release. He appeared weak and broken, but he was home.

If Shalit had grown up in the past decade, so had I.

In June 2006, I was a recent college graduate with my first “real world” job: director of academic affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles. The work was meaningful but explaining Israel on campus wasn’t easy; my experience coincided with a slew of gray hairs that inexplicably sprouted all over my head.

On the morning of June 25, I received a text message from a colleague with the ominous words, “Hamas just attacked and abducted a soldier.”

Hamas terrorists infiltrated Israel via border tunnels near Kerem Shalom and attacked an IDF post, killing two soldiers and injuring three, including 19-year-old Shalit. 

On July 12, Hezbollah ambushed two armored Humvees in northern Israel, killing three soldiers and abducting Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, taking them into Lebanon.

For the next month, Israel faced a two-front war as it fought Hamas to the south and Hezbollah to the north. Nearly 200 Israelis were killed and up to 500,000 were temporarily displaced.

Like many Jews, I primarily viewed Israel through a lens of miraculous prowess. Think Israeli Air Force fighter jets flying over Auschwitz. For me, Israel was completely indestructible, which is why Shalit’s capture shattered my perceptions about Israel’s invincibility.

Fourteen years after his capture, why are millions of Jews still invested in Gilad Shalit?

I grew up a lot that summer. I realized that Israel wasn’t invincible, that the world will still condemn the Jewish state even as it fights a two-front war, and that some of Israel’s worst critics are Jews.

From the consulate’s former location in Miracle Mile, I heard the angry chants of daily protesters as they accused Israel of war crimes in Gaza and Lebanon. On most days, those protesters were local Jews who belonged to organizations espousing peace.

It was disheartening. There were many days when the consulate was forced to close early and I had to restrain myself from confronting the protesters and asking why they weren’t holding signs featuring the abducted soldiers’ faces.

The only thought that helped mute the hateful reality of the protesters was a grain of hope that Shalit, Goldwasser and Regev were still alive. I held onto that hope through the quiet whisper of a daily prayer: Please, God, free these boys from their captors and bring them home safely.

Five years later, Shalit returned to Israel in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, who were collectively responsible for the deaths of 569 Israelis; Goldwasser and Regev returned home in coffins draped with the flag of the Jewish state.

Fourteen years after his capture, why are millions of Jews still invested in Gilad Shalit? The easy answer is that Judaism is obsessed with life. Yes, but it is equally obsessed with the fruits of life — with what we do with our lives. Shalit’s journey reminds us of a painful question we often ask about casualties of war: What if the soldier had lived?

After five years in isolated captivity, Gilad Shalit is now enjoying one of life’s ultimate fruits: love. I won’t be invited to the wedding, but it’ll still be one of the best days of my life.


Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer and speaker.